Book Design: Who’s the Top Dog?

by Joel Friedlander on October 4, 2011 · 10 comments

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What would you say is the most important element in book design?

  • Text font?
  • Trim size?
  • Words per page?
  • Page proportions?
  • Gutter margins?

Each of those things is important, of course. They each have to take part for a book design to really work. But work for whom?

Experienced designers know that only one person counts when it comes to getting your book design right—the reader.

Everything in your book design should be focused on easing the communication between author and reader. No matter how beautiful you think your fonts are, or how clever your running heads, if they don’t help the reader navigate the book, don’t aid her comprehension of the author’s message, get rid of them.

“Designing is not a profession but an attitude.”
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Photographer, Graphic Designer, Co-Founder, Bauhaus

Throw out the fancy rules, the titles set at artistic angles, the fonts you used to show different characters are speaking. They are all unnecessary distractions for your reader.

Remember that your reader has likely read thousands of books over a lifetime, and brings with her all the tools necessary to understand your story.

Pare the design down to essentials. If you need something fancy or dramatic, keep it on chapter opening pages where there’s room to play.

“Design should never say, ‘Look at me.’ It should always say, ‘Look at this.'”
David Craib, Designer, Parable Communications

You’ll find that the simpler you make your interior design, the better it is at doing its job. Having achieved that level of simplicity you’ll also find lots of opportunities for sophistication in the details.

The mark of a mature designer is control of all the elements that go to make up the book page. Then the book designer can find the deft touch, the one typographic element, the spot of color, that will bring the design into balance.

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Antoinè De Saint-Exupéry, author

The problem isn’t ornaments, drop shadows and emboss effects. The problem is integrating the author’s message with the physical and typographic things that communicate that message.

This is also why it’s always better for the reader if you err on the side of simplicity. Knowing how to get out of the way is one of the book designer’s best character traits. You can just go crazy with simplicity and be confident the book will still be readable.

Of course all this communication is aimed at the reader. And that’s why the most important person, the top dog, in book design, really is the reader.

Be kind to your readers, it will pay off in the end.

Photo by sabianmaggy

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    { 9 comments… read them below or add one }

    James October 5, 2011 at 10:14 am


    As a reader, I’m a sucker for inspiring cover art. I’ve looked aghast at some of the self-published covers I’ve seen–clip art? *Really*?–and though “why, I’d never buy that! It looks awful!”

    For fiction, I think visual design is especially important to me, because it sets the tone and initial “feel” of the book. There’s an unspoken “ah, somebody spent some time on this book” feeling that reels me in.

    With e-books, this seems more confusing. I’m often discouraged clicking on little cover captures on Amazon to see the bigger one, because–regardless of reviews, that’s what I want to see first (and any Amazon book with less than ten reviews I usually ignore–they’re typically padded with family members and pals).


    Joel Friedlander October 5, 2011 at 11:37 am

    James, make sure to check in next week for the September edition of the e-Book Cover Design Awards. We have 220+ covers that have been submitted.


    Michael Newton October 5, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    How do you enter into this Cover Design Awards?


    Joel Friedlander October 5, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Michael, here’s a link to the article about the Awards, and there’s a link on that page to the submission page.

    Monthly e-Book Cover Design Awards


    Michael Newton October 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    I assume you cannot enter a book that has been published as both print and ebook?

    Joel Friedlander October 5, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    There’s no prohibition about that Michael. As long as it’s a cover for an ebook that’s been published, it’s eligible.

    Jean October 4, 2011 at 9:33 am

    I couldn’t agree more! Simplicity in book cover design is paramount. I love simple covers that get across the feeling of the book with the picture and text that doesn’t fight the photo.


    Michael Newton October 4, 2011 at 8:11 am

    I agree 100%. For me, the design should be simple and easy to read. I am not trying to impress anybody with my interior design. A good design is one which the reader does not even notice. Instead, the reader can focus on the text of the book. If you have a good book, don’t distract the reader with other things. Our books won’t win awards for best design, but hopefully we can win awards for our content. Content is king!


    Lou Belcher October 4, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Yes, I agree that we should keep the reader in mind when designing our books. In writing, making decisions in favor of communication is always important. So too with designing the look and functionality of a book.

    Nice post… thanks.



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